Triple topolectal reprimand

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One of the most annoying things about being in China is that people will cut in front of you in lines when you're waiting for a bus, to buy a train ticket, or whatever. If you wish to achieve your aim, sooner or later you learn that you have to take defensive / offensive measures (I learned to spread my legs wide and put my elbows out). I also realized that it would help if I called the queue cutters out — loudly — in Mandarin. But what if the queue cutter pretends that he / she doesn't understand Mandarin? Watch:

(The video is also available here with a voice-over explanation.)

The foreign man speaks to two Chinese women in Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), Wuhan topolect, and Dongbei (Northeastern) topolect.  Here's a transcription of the dialog between the foreign man and two Chinese women.  Because there are no conventions for writing Wuhan and Northeastern topolects in romanization (at least not that I am aware of), and also because I do not know their pronunciation that well, I am transcribing all three versions in Hanyu Pinyin:

Man (speaks good Mandarin):  Qǐng dào hòumiàn pái xià duì hǎo ma?  Nǐ hǎo nǐ hǎo, máfan qǐng dào hòumiàn pái xià duì hǎo ma?
Woman 1 (speaks Wuhan topolect):  Gè bānmǎ shuō de me sī, láozī tīng dōu tīng bù dǒng.
Man (speaks Wuhan topolect):  Ní'áng mò chāduì, dào hòutou páiduì kè (qù). Lēi áng (zhèyàng) tīng dé dǒng me?
Woman 2 (speaks Northeastern topolect):  Gàn hā? Nǐ nǎ zhī yǎnjīng kàn dào wǒ chāduìle? Shì bùshì yǒu máobìng?
Man (speaks Northeastern topolect):  Nǐ shuō gàn shà ne! Nǐyā chāduì hái yǒulǐ le? Yào bù ràng dàhuǒ píng gè lǐ?
Woman 2 (speaks Northeastern topolect):  Shì bùshì yǒu máobìng? Bù qī (chī) la! Bù qī le! Zǒu zǒu zǒu! Wúyǔle hǎo ba!
Man (speaks Northeastern topolect):  Qiáo nǐ nà sǔnsāi (sai)!

Man: 请到后面排下队好吗? 你好你好, 麻烦请到后面排下队好吗?
Woman 1:个斑马说的么司, 劳资*听都听不懂.
Man: 尼昂莫插队, 到后头排队克(去). 勒昂(这样)听得懂么?
Woman 2: 干哈? 你哪只眼睛看到我插队了? 是不是有毛病?
Man: 你说干啥呢! 你丫插队还有理了? 要不让大伙评个理?
Woman 2: 是不是有毛病?不七(吃)啦! 不七了! 走走走! 无语了好吧!

*láozī 劳资 (lit., "labor and capital"), but here being used for its sound to stand for lǎozi 老子 ("[your] old man = I")

Man: Please go to the back of the queue and line up there, all right?  Hello, hello.  [May I] trouble [you] to please go to the back of the queue and line up there, all right?
Woman 1: What's this zebra talking about?  Daddy doesn't understand what he's talking about.
Man: Laydee, don't cut in line.  Scram back to the end of the line.  Do you understand me this way?
Woman 2: What['re you talking about]?  Which of your eyes saw me jump the queue?  Is something wrong [with you]?
Man: What are YOU talking about?  Ya cut in line and yet ya want to reason with me about it.   Do you want everybody [here] to decide who is making more sense?
Woman 2:
Is something wrong [with you]?  I'm not gonna eat / take it anymore!  I'm not gonna take it anymore!  Let's get out of here!  Let's go!  Not gonna talk to him any longer!
Man: Just look at your miserable self!

I can't guarantee that I captured all the nuances of the Wuhan and Northeastern parts.

A speaker of Sichuanese comments:

The Wuhan topolect is not quite intelligible to me without the voice-over explanation and subtitles, mainly because the tones are greatly different from my native topolect. From what little I have perceived in the video, it seems that Wuhan topolect tends to prolong the pronunciation of the last word in the sentence,

The female:  听不懂 ting bu dong~~~~
The male:  排个队 pai ge dei~~~~

As for Mandarin and Dongbei topolect, they are quite familiar to me because they are widely used and presented in mass media. And they do not much differ from each other, except for some idiomatic usages, for example "你丫 ni ya" in the Dongbei topolect.

The inimitable Charles Liu has an article about this in The Nanfang:

"Foreigner Yells at Person Cutting in Line In Three Chinese Dialects:  The only thing missing was a mic drop".

It turns out that this short video may not have been entirely spontaneous.  Apparently the three students wanted to use it as a public service ad to encourage people to stand in line, but it became viral and controversial when it was put online.

There are accounts of this incident in Chinese here and here.

[h.t. Ben Zimmer; thanks to Fangyi Cheng and Yixue Yang]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    May 29, 2016 @ 10:55 am

    From June Teufel Dreyer:

    Notice that these people are wearing ear buds—another great way to pretend you don’t hear what those who complain about queue-cutting are saying.

  2. K. Chang said,

    May 29, 2016 @ 11:47 am

    Sometimes I am amazed at the different Chinese topolects myself, and for people who can master more than a few. I can speak Mandarin and Cantonese, with *some* Taiwanese/Minnanyu (very limited), but I am utterly lost when it comes to Shanghainese.

    I was reminded of this when I found a Japanese school drama anime (based on a manga) called Kare Kano, usually translated as "His and Her Circumstances"… Nothing unusual about this… except it was dubbed in Cantonese and Shanghainese. Female protagonist dialogue was dubbed in Cantonese, and her male rival (antagonist?) is dubbed in Shanghainese.

    I'm pretty sure the Cantonese was original as this was released in Hong Kong with Cantonese dub, but whoever did the Shanghainese dub on TOP of that… let's just say while I recognized a few words of Shanghainese (I do have a few friends from there) I'd be utterly lost without the subtitles, both English AND Chinese.

  3. Mark S said,

    May 29, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

    This reminded me of Curb Your Enthusiasm's scenes about "chat and cut":

    Maybe, just maybe, in China people cut in line in a less sophisticated manner?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 29, 2016 @ 12:57 pm

    @Mark S

    Thanks for the comparative material.

    In China, they don't stand on ceremony, just cut right in, and it can get pretty physical as they barge in front of you.

  5. Michael Rank said,

    May 29, 2016 @ 1:17 pm

    Zebra, why zebra?⁈‼

  6. WSM said,

    May 29, 2016 @ 1:49 pm

    Something similar happened to me many moons ago (as I'm sure it has for many others)… Some lady tried to zhan4 pian2yi against a presumably mute laowai and got burned. So satisfying. Dude's fluency in dongbei hua is impressive.

  7. John McWhorter said,

    May 29, 2016 @ 2:58 pm

    What alternately amazes and depresses me about posts like this is that it's clear that learning standard Mandarin gives you not all that much more connection to the way MOST speakers of Mandarin – and just Mandarin, never mind the other Chineses – actually speak than Modern Standard Arabic gives you to the colloquial Arabics. The gulf is smaller, but much vaster than one is led to think, especially given the writing- and culture-focused sense of "language" that is encouraged in China. The late Alan Kaye used to say "There's a LOT of Arabic!!!!" Most would say that of Mandarin just in terms of characters and their histories. But it's just as true of spoken Mandarin language right here and now.

  8. Geoff said,

    May 29, 2016 @ 4:44 pm

    Is this something that happens mostly to foreigners because they think you won't be able to answer back? Do they do it to each other as much? What do the people behind the foreigner in the queue do?

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 29, 2016 @ 5:09 pm

    @Michael Rank

    I will write a separate post about the zebra. It requires a fairly long and complicated explanation.

  10. DaveL said,

    May 29, 2016 @ 5:12 pm

    Geoff, my experience in China (Beijing, Xi'an, Chengu, Lijiang) is that Chinese people will cut in front of anyone who leaves them the space to do so. One feisty grandmotherly type worked her way from way behind (at Mao's tomb) to right behind us past a whole cast of Chinese people before slipping past us. Comparatively easily in our case, harder against people armed with umbrellas, etc. That being said, whenever anything like that was witnessed, local people said "Oh, they are from the countryside, they don't know any better."

  11. Mark S said,

    May 29, 2016 @ 7:49 pm

    I also want to point out that the problem of people cutting in line could be partly due to a bad organization plan that's used in that store/bank/restaurant/etc.

    Here's a good organization plan called "combined queue" where cutting in rarely occurs (at least here in Vancouver):

    Here's a short video explaining the science behind why this plan makes sense (even without the cutting in problem):

  12. Vanya said,

    May 30, 2016 @ 7:59 am

    @John McWhorter

    Chinese vs. Arabic is an interesting comparison, but on the whole learning MSM still gives you a better foothold in Chinese daily life than Fusha does for the Arabic world. There are millions of people who do speak standard Mandarin as their native tongue, many millions more who speak a native dialect that is reasonably close and many millions more who are fairly comfortable in holding informal conversations and living daily life using MSM as their second language. Does anyone speak Modern Standard Arabic as a native tongue? My impression was that Arabs will generally avoid MSA in informal situations when possible – for example a Syrian living in Egypt would learn Egyptian, whereas a Cantonese lving in Shanghai will probably speak Mandarin. The situation in China reminds me more of the linguistic situation in Italy, although maybe an Italy where French and Catalan were also considered "dialects" of Italian.

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